“Most of our lives are noise, aren’t they?” a character asks late in Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions, a sequence of five one-act plays in which people mishear, overhear, and talk past each other. Telephones and doorbells are left unanswered, operators fail to make connections, and microphones distort rather than amplify voices. More often than not, conversations are glorified monologues.
In one of the plays, “Between Mouthfuls,” a waiter (Stephen Billington) serves two couples eating dinner, but we only hear what they are saying when he stands near them, leaving us to fill in the gaps. In another, “Gosforth Fête,” a pregnancy that results from a one-night stand is accidentally broadcast over a loudspeaker at a village gala. And in the final play, “A Talk in the Park,” a series of strangers ignore the problems of the person to their right while venting their own to the person to their left, like a string of lonely dominos.
There are, admittedly, one or two inspired moments in Confusions, which was originally produced in 1974 and is now being revived at 59E59 with direction by the author. As always, Mr. Ayckbourn is conservatively experimental in his staging, and the aural element in “Between Mouthfuls” is particularly clever. But these five works never really cohere beyond loose thematic and narrative similarities and the result is somewhat lackluster; there is a detached quality, as if Mr. Ayckbourn were accumulating evidence to prove human beings are isolated but never bothered to consider the emotional meaning of that isolation. Furthermore, its episodic nature, combined with some inexplicably dated music, gives it the effect of a limp situation comedy. When a playwright is as indefatigable as Mr. Ayckbourn (his seventy-ninth play, Hero’s Welcome, is premiering in repertory with Confusions), there is bound to be some detritus along the way. Rather than reanimating this relic, he should have left it in the past.